Russia: Western Creation of the Threatening “Bear” and Pre-Romanov History

Wednesday, 24 May 2023 — Geopolitics and Climate Change

Roger Boyd

“In his present mood, PM [Neville Chamberlain] says he will resign rather than sign alliance with Soviet”
(Sir Alexander Cadogan, British Permanent Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, private diary entry, May 20th, 1939, quoted in Kotkin 2017, p. 642)

“Russia … a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”
(Winston Churchill, October 1939, quoted in Mettan 2017, p. 176)

“The Russian bear has always been eager to stick his paw in Latin American waters … Now we’ve got him in a trap, let’s take his leg off right up to his testicles. On second thought, let’s take off his testicles, too.”
(Air Force General Curtis LeMay’s advice to President Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, quoted in Joshua Rothman, Waiting For World War III, The New Yorker Oct. 16th, 2012)

“The historical practices of the Russians, who are typically, almost genetically, driven to coopt … penetrate … gain favor … typical Russian technique”
(James Clapper, Former US Director of National Intelligence 2010-2017: interviewed on NBC News Meet The Press May 28th 2017)

In the West, Russia has been caricatured as a dark and dangerous presence for centuries, irrespective of its internal political economic configuration and its actual foreign policy orientation. Mettan (2017) exhumes the history of this caricature, seeing its roots in the Great Schism of the Christian church in the 11th century:

religious confrontation [between the Eastern and Western Christian churches] has lost nothing of its virulence and continues even now to impregnate the minds with the same anti-Orthodox and anti-Russian prejudices as in 1054, even if they now hide behind other terms and other arguments. (Ibid., p. 135)

The Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century can only have increased the fear of an unknowable terror lurking in the east. Mettan also sees the base of the trope of Russian expansionism and despotism in the period of the European Enlightenment in the 18th century:

The myth of Russian expansionism was born under Louis XIV with the fabrication of Peter the Great’s fake will, written with the aid of Polish aristocrats. The myth of oriental despotism took shape in Enlightenment times, with Montesquieu, the later Diderot, and the liberal intellectuals of Restoration, Guizot and Tocqueville in particular. (Ibid., p. 137)

This period is also seen by Wolff as one of geographical ontological change, as Europe became defined more though its alignment to the east and west, than through its alignment to the north and south, creating an Eastern European Other to the Western European enlightened civilizational project:

The invention of Eastern Europe was an event in intellectual history that occurred as the Enlightenment invested an overwhelming significance in the alignment of Europe according to the east and west, while, correlatively, reducing and revising the significance of the Renaissance alignment according to north and south. Eastern Europe, on the map, came to exist in the analytical eye of the enlightened beholder. (Wolff 1994, p. 357)

For the United Kingdom, the caricaturing of Russia arrived in the 19th century, after centuries of good relations, as the Russian defeat of Napoleon’s Grand Armée both elevated Russian power and removed much of the French threat which was finally extinguished at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Following a strategy of offshore balancing, it made sense for the British to reconsider who they defined as their enemy and their friend. It is notable that the UK and France allied together in the later Crimean War (1853-1856) against Russia:

Russophobia is a paradox in the history of Great Britain. Within the United Kingdom there developed early in the nineteenth century an antipathy toward Russia, which soon became the most pronounced and enduring element in the national outlook on the world abroad. The contradictory sequel of nearly three centuries of consistently friendly relations, this hostility found expression in the Crimean War. (John Howes Gleason, quoted in Mettan 2017, p. 178)

The underlying antipathy toward Russia was intensified with the Bolshevik Revolution, as communism provided an ideological threat to liberal capitalism. For a short while after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this antipathy was replaced with a patronizing Western stance of being the liberal capitalist teacher to the Russian student. The reassertion of Russian nationalism and self-determination then resurfaced the caricature. As James Brown notes, the current Western view of Russia is a “Stereotype, Wrapped in a Cliché, Inside a Caricature” (quoted in Mettan 2017, p. 176). Such misrepresentations are voiced in the quotes at the beginning of this chapter, resulting in actions that may be seen as against a nation’s own self-interest (in the case of Chamberlain) or against the interest of humanity as a whole (in the case of LeMay), and even producing what could be seen as paranoid delusions in a man who was the US Director of National Intelligence for seven years (Clapper). The analysis below will strive to cast aside such caricatures and see Russia as it really is.

In this chapter I will first describe the historical development of Russia and how the nature of that development affected both the state/society complex, and the long-term determinants of the strategic culture of the policy-making elites. I will show that Russia had been an expansionary state for a number of centuries prior to the late 19th century, when it fell behind economically and militarily with respect to other nations (e.g. Britain and France in the Crimean War and Japan in the Russo-Japanese War [1904-1905]), and has since followed a predominantly defensive posture – both in the shape of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and as the more recent Russian Federation. In the past century, the nature of Russian society has progressed through two convulsive periods, the transition to communism after the end of the Civil War in 1922 and the transition to a deeply flawed capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. I will then utilize these insights to assess current energy-related policies in the context of major power competition. In the final piece of this chapter I will summarize the current Russian configuration with respect to the possible paths open to the nation.

5.1. Historical Positioning

5.1.1. Ryurikid Dynasty (862-1598)

            A founding myth of Russia is that the Slavic tribes of what was to become Russia invited a Viking (the Rus’) prince to rule over them, as they were unable to effectively govern themselves, “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come rule and reign over us” (Galeotti 2020, p. 14). This is a lovely story “however, the evidence that he was invited in seems, alas, distinctly lacking” (Ibid., p. 15), but “it does reflect the fact that Scandinavian Vikings, called Rus’ were present in the territories of the eastern Slav and Finnic tribes by the ninth century and that they eventually became rulers or princes over the native population” (Martin 2007, p. 2). It is probable that a Ryurik did establish a fort at Ladoga, east of present-day Saint Petersburg, at about this time. He then established the city that became Novgorod, about 125 km to the south. His successor, Oleg (879-912) then took the lands around Kiev from two other Rus’ leaders, creating the lands of the Rus’ with Kiev as its capital (the Kievan Rus’) and he as the Grand Prince of Kiev. After his death the Kievan Rus’ were ruled by Igor 1 (912-945), then Olga (Igor’s wife who acted as regent due to her sons’ young ages: 945-959) who was later sainted for her work to spread Christianity within Russia, then her son Sviatoslav 1 (959-972); the latter’s death lead to a fratricidal contest between his three sons. The eldest, Yaropolk (972-980) killed the middle brother, but then was killed by the youngest brother – who became Vladimir the Great (980-1015). The problem of contested succession was to dog the Rus’ until the time of the Romanovs, the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin, and may possibly become an issue after the time of Putin; a threat that Putin himself has repeatedly striven to delay. Vladimir the Great both expanded his territories and forced his lords and subjects to convert to Christianity. This latter act provided a highly beneficial alliance with Byzantium and the state-church combination that was only interrupted by communist rule in the twentieth century; a combination resurrected by Putin.

With the death of Vladimir, another bloody dispute for the crown broke out between his sons that lasted for nine years, ending in the division of the territory between the brothers Mstislav and Yaroslavl (1024-1036) and the reunification under Yaroslavl (1036-1054) after the other brother’s death. The sprawling lands of the Rus’ were governed in a distributed fashion, with the sons and trusted acolytes of the Grand Prince being assigned to govern, and sometimes rotated between, specific areas. With repeatedly conflicted successions, and individual principalities growing in strength, the lands were beset by fratricidal succession wars and increasing fragmentation. Competitors on all sides surrounded the lands of the Rus’, with the Vikings to the North, the aggressive roaming tribes of Pechenegs (who seized Kiev in 1036) and Polovtsy to the East and South, and new challengers such as the Poles to the West. The result was ongoing conflict with other states, and the involvement of those states in the internal politics of the Rus’; including marriage alliances between Rus’ and foreign elites. The Polovtsy, who repeatedly penetrated Rus’ defences and roamed across the Rus’ interior, provided the greatest challenges. “The conference at Lyubech in 1097 was a direct response to the crisis generated by the Polovtsy attacks and the failure of the [internal political system] … [which] proved to be inadequate to withstand the power of the Polovtsy” (Martin 2007, p. 59). This conference made governance positions inherited within bloodlines and set inheritance rules; establishing a feudal structure with Kiev at its center. The improved cooperation and coordination that resulted was reflected in successful campaigns against the Polovtsy that removed them as a threat to the southern border. President Putin raised the memory of the Pechenegs and Polovtsy when he compared the challenge of COVID-19 to their challenges to Russia (Shevchenko 2020).

During the 1125-1237 period, “the number of principalities within [the Kievan Rus’] and the relative power among them was continually changing” due to dynastic competition and conflict, “but these trends neither destroyed the integrity of the Kievan Rus’ nor undermined the role of Kiev as its real and symbolic center” (Martin 2007, p.105). At the end of this period, far to the east the Mongol conquest of northern China was being completed; the Mongol attention now turned to the west, to the land of the Rus’. The first encounter was at the battle of the Kalka River in 1223, with the Mongol advanced guard crushing the Rus’ army. Four years later came the main invasion force, which swept aside any resistance from 1237-1240. The destruction of those that did not surrender was typified by the destruction of Riazan captured in the Tale of the Destruction of Riazan by Batu, “the Mongols ‘burned this holy city with all its beauty and wealth … And churches of God were destroyed and much blood was spilled on the holy altars. And not one man remained alive in the city. All were dead … And there was not even anyone to mourn the dead’” (Martin 2007, p. 153). The 50,000 strong population of Kiev was also nearly completely wiped out (Galeotti 2020); Novgorod sued for peace, therefore escaping such destruction. For more than two centuries, the land of the Rus’ would fall under the Mongol Yoke.

The Mongol Golden Horde (the western portion of the Mongol Empire) established its own capital to the East of the Rus’ and required obedience and tribute from the conquered lands; in a structure reminiscent of the later Chinese Tribute system. It is during this period that the previously smaller town of Moscow flourished, especially from the 14th century onwards as its Ryurikid rulers proved able quislings that were highly adept at using Mongol power and politics to consolidate their own position. For example, Prince Ivan (1325-1341) led a Mongol army to suppress an uprising in the competing principality of Tver. He also solved the succession issue by instituting the rule of primogeniture, full succession by the eldest son. With continued expansion and increasing wealth, Moscow started to push back against a fading Golden Horde that was impacted by the Black Death, the disruption of the Silk Road trade route by the overthrow of the Mongols in China and by the Ming and Turkish advances, and internal Mongol conflict. Dmitry (1359-1389) fought and defeated Tver against the Mongol ruler Mamai’s wishes, and then routed a Mongol army at the Battle of Kulikovo (1380). Although Kulikovo is seen as a monument to Russian nationalism, and in 1988 the Russian Orthodox Church sainted Dmitry, it would take another hundred years to end Mongol rule; with Moscow being sacked and once more subjugated only two years after Kulikovo. During this century, Moscow continued to consolidate its position with a “Gathering of the Russian Lands” (Galeotti 2020, p. 42).

Ivan III (“the Great”, 1462-1505) brought Novgorod under the rule of Moscow in 1478, fended off the Mongols at the Great Stand on the Ugra River in 1480, and expanded to the west at the expense of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow became the center of an Orthodox Christian Church that was fully supported by, and supportive of, the Muscovite rulers. Power was increasingly centralized within the Grand Prince, supported by a new legal code, the Sudebnik; a process of centralization continued by Ivan the Great’s successor, Vasily III (1505-1533). With his death, the three-year-old Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) ascended to the throne, with firstly his mother and then the squabbling Boyar families holding the regency. In 1547 he was crowned Tsar of All the Russias, a move toward autocratic rule rather than that of “first among equals”. He built the basic structures of the Russian state bureaucracy and formalized the relations between church and state. He also set up a salaried army answerable directly to the Tsar, rather than the nobility, which was used to conquer the Khanate of Kazan (1552) and the Astrakahn Khanate (1556) – massively expanding Russia’s territory to the south and east; with an ongoing expansion into Siberia providing further expansion. The indecisive Livonian War (1558-1583) with Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania and Poland followed. In parallel to this in 1572 the remaining Khanate of Crimea nearly sacked Moscow before being turned back. At the same time, Ivan had launched a paranoid time of terror within the nation – which included “a month long orgy of massacre and rape in Novgorod in 1570” (Galeotti 2020, p. 56), the torture and execution of numerous perceived internal enemies, and the death of Ivan’s son at his own hands. This mixture of genius and paranoia would revisit Russia centuries later during the rule of Stalin. At Ivan’s death in 1584 a socially and economically devastated Russia was handed over to his incompetent young son Fyodor (rather than the competent elder son that he had murdered). Power was contested between the rival families, and when Fyodor died childless in 1598 the Ryurikid dynasty died with him.

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